Friday, January 20, 2006

ADHD: Attention Disaster Hypersensitivity Disorder

I came across a great article over at Focused Distractions. They covered what it was like to fall asleep with AD/HD. I encourage all reading this column to jaunt on over and give it a read. The article wasn't about insomnia per se, but more about this little symptom of AD/HD called Hypersensitivity and how it affects common activities. They did a capital job explaining the types of thoughts that race through one's head when one attempts to sleep when they are hyperaware of everything around them.

For me, the greatest sensitivity is odor. I must have a dog's nose. I sure don't have a human's nose. I can smell milk going off a week before it thinks about it. I can sense which room my neighbor is sneaking a smoke in. I can tell what my wife had for lunch when we kiss hours later. If there was a superhero team that needed someone with a super sense of smell I'd be their man. I can see the costume now - bright green black checkered spandex covering my entire body except for my amazing nose. Olfactoryman! Wondernose! Mr. Nostrils!! Sometimes this is a gift. When meat is going bad, you want me fighting the good fight by your side.

"Have no fear! Mr. Nostrils is here! Stand back, miss! That meat is manky!"

Most of the time it's a pain in the neck, especially when people don't shower or wear swampy clothes. Then I can't focus on anything but their odor filling my flaring nostrils.

I did a test a few months ago. I had been developing a theory that perhaps I was the only person bothered by these odors. Not that the odors were only imaginary, but that for some reason other people didn't notice them or could ignore them. So when a friend came over and I couldn't concentrate on the movie we were watching because his clothes stank, I studied everybody around me. Nobody was wrinkling up their nose or glaring sideways. After the friend left I decided to throw caution to the wind and reveal my secret identify as Mr. Nostrils. I explained that I was usually hypersensitive to scents and found them distracting. I wondered if anybody else had noticed our friend's odor. Very risky, but superheros are bold and brave! Or I have AD/HD and a compelling urge to destroy friendships that span millennia. Fortunately, I had been practicing on strangers on the bus so my friends weren't offended in the slightest. They also confirmed my suspicions that only I had noticed the odor.

So much angst over odor. It seems a silly topic, doesn't it? Especially if you don't have AD/HD. You probably can't imagine what it's like to have cogent thought pushed off the stage while seemingly insignificant events steal the spotlight. And yet, that's exactly what happens. It's like trying to listen to your favorite radio station on the beach when the guy next to you is listening to another station at full volume. There is cacophony. Frustration. Noise. Likewise, odor becomes noise. Touch becomes noise. Taste becomes noise. They crowd out the other thoughts - like when taking a test and reading the questions over and over again because you can't tune out the guy four seats back tapping his pencil quietly on the desk. It's a problem of magnitude or amplitude. Something in the AD/HD process gives greater weight to background noise.

With effort we can train ourselves to either tune out the noise, or find a way to reduce it's effect. We become such finicky and particular creatures as we learn to cope with these tiny distractions, however. I could completely relate with the authors over at Focused Distractions. My bed sheets have to be just right. Shirts have to fit me a certain way. I don't enjoy wearing contacts because I can't forget that they are there. I can't drink milk that has been warmed to room temperature then rerefrigerated. I don't enjoy food that's been slightly scorched. I can't tune out my neighbors subwoofer at 2am even when I'm tired. In fact, I can still detect the vibrations of his subwoofer even with white noise playing on the stereo, a CPAP blasting in my ear, and my head buried under the pillow. Such hypersensitivity seems unfair and useless at moments like that. Couldn't I be more like my wife? She could sleep soundly if my neighbor was moshing in our clothes closet.

There's no real solution for it. As Spidey says, with great power comes great irritability. Or something like that. Fortunately one can train oneself to ignore sensory distractions. If I learned to sleep with a CPAP mask strapped to my face while being inflated all night long like a balloon in a Macey's parade then I can learn to ignore other things as well. The trick is to not let the distractions irritate you. Don't sit there suffering and irritated and abused. The hypersensitivity that can encroach on our thoughts also gives us an intense life experience for all the positive sensations as well. No matter how much my bed sheets bug me when I try to sleep, I wouldn't trade away this hypersensitivity for a more "normal" existence. Would you?

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